Bridge-Free Salish Sea

More thought required on good transportation policy

By Ken Gurr

It is more than frustrating to find ourselves pushed into a narrow debate about the notion of building a bridge. Notwithstanding the Islands Trust’s long established policy of “no fixed links” to the Gulf Islands and the culturally-defining nature of a community that was created and nurtured by being an island, building a bridge out into the suburbs of Nanaimo ignores big, glaring gaps in research and trends analysis. Here are the three big things that come to my mind:

Firstly, since 2012, “fringe” reporting sources like the Economist, Canadian Business and Ford Motor Co. have documented the irreversible trend in reduced car ownership and driving hours. This is a major shift. The most notable is with Millennials (ages 18 – 34) that are forgoing cars and living in urban areas served by mass transit, not to mention aging drivers (and there is demographically a bulge of us) that are not driving as much anymore. A highway for cars to drive to and from Gabriola is going backwards against all the trends.

Secondly, a bridge feasibility study is not a transportation planning study! That must come first. We are ignoring the master transportation planning already being done by the Regional District of Nanaimo (BC Transit), the expansion and connectivity plans for transit, with the hub of a downtown Nanaimo interchange to the malls, the ferry and the hospital; the eventual island train link. Mass transit is growing and improving in Nanaimo, not shrinking. Why would we stick a bridge halfway down the island and force longer commutes and SOV car trips? Master planning also looks at demographic and urban growth trends, would it not make more sense to provide better transportation links to where the people are and where they want to go?

Transportation planning also needs to look at efficiency and productivity, and with the case of BC Ferries and the brain-trust steering that corporation, we have a long, long way to go. Against the backdrop of Google Inc. rolling out self-driving car technology and other forms of A.I. robotics in under a decade we have no simple-to-implement technology for demand management in getting on-and-off the island (aside from the Lunch Bunch’s ferry cam). We are mired in an expensive crewing system and an inefficient boat (laser guided car loading systems, auto-piloted docking are all on the short-term horizon). We aren’t even looking at other ways to define the best ways to move people across the water. Would water taxi, combined with automobile sailings on a LNG-fueled Quinsam be better? There are reams of available data to analyze the movement of people on the Quinsam (who are they, when and where are they going), but no business strategy to look at how that could improve service and the bottom-line. Would going to Duke Point for cars and trucks only with the ability to double trips on a shorter crossing in peak periods, combined with bikes and pedestrians on a water taxi to downtown work better? True transportation planning looks at these kinds of things.

Finally, there is the island culture: our community values, what does it mean to choose to live on an island? Why do people visit here and we create a service economy built on tourism? Is the goose-with-the-golden-egg being an island that is a bit tricky to get to? For me, I intentionally wanted to live in an island community separated by water. It does something good to people, to the way they think and interact. It is true of all small island communities I’ve visited in the world. Waiting for a boat is the opportunity for visiting, reconnecting and thinking. While waiting for or crossing on the ferry, I’ve seen tearful goodbyes, warm hugs of greeting, in-depth conversations, wonderful naps, and wide-eyed wonder of spotting marine life. Driving like a Lower Mainland commuter across a bridge wipes out those connections. What will that do to our island culture, our community values . . . the kind of people we are and that will come here to live?

But because a few people organized a bridge petition and have some unknown, obvious pull in the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure’s office, we find $200,000 of tax money easily given over to this half-baked, isolated analysis of the economics of a bridge. That’s how we do solid public transportation planning, by a single issue, 600-name petition? Hmmmm.

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